It was July 21, 1968 when a young preacher first set up camp in Magherafelt.
In the middle of a thunder storm with rain pouring through a leaking roof of the mission tent, those attending to hear Rev William McCrea, then assistant student minister to Dr Ian Paisley, huddled together under umbrellas as the heavens opened.
More than 50 years later Calvary Free Presbyterian Church stands on Mullaghboy Hill looking down on the town, the 600-seat building newly refurbished, debt free and ready to embrace a new generation as Rev McCrea finally steps down as full-time minister of the church he built from the humblest of beginnings.
Born in Stewartstown, Co Tyrone, into a farming family on August 6, 1948, and the youngest of five, his passion for the ministry was there from an early age.
But no matter where he went, the pull of the south Derry market town always proved too strong to resist.
“I suppose I must have done something right in those first days in Magherafelt as a young 19-year-old,” Rev McCrea said after delivering his final sermon.
“They invited me back and I never left.”
He embarked on a political career as a councillor in Magherafelt which lasted four decades, as he followed in the footsteps of Paisley by stepping onto a bigger political stage.
There was a four-year spell as the DUP’s MP for Mid Ulster after a 78-vote win over Sinn Fein’s Danny Morrison, before Martin McGuinness unseated him in 1997.
Spells as an MLA for Mid Ulster and South Antrim, then as MP for South Antrim, continued a rollercoaster political career that saw controversies, a three-month stretch in prison for riotous behaviour at an Orange parade in Dungiven in 1971, impassioned speeches as Paisley’s right-hand man in the DUP, and parcel bomb and machine gun attacks on his home. But if there’s one legacy he wants to be remembered for, it’s the church a community grew around.
“I can remember that old Army tent with the holes in the roof like it’s yesterday.” he said.
“It’s amazing where those 50 years have gone to.”
That short visit to Magherafelt was followed by similar missions in Scarva and Desertmartin, but blazing that early trail took its toll and a six-month spell on the sidelines to recover from illness ended with a calling back to what would become his spiritual home in Magherafelt.
“I really threw myself into it all in those early days,” he said.
“I paid a price. I was exhausted and had to step back.
“It was June 1969 when I returned fully recharged, preaching in a borrowed wooden hut loaned by Rev Beggs of Ballymena.
“We knew that was only on loan. so when the hut had to be returned we understood, but had to do something to keep going.
“We made do with a corrugated iron building – the ‘Tin Tabernacle’ or ‘Hen House’ as people called it.
“It was at Mullaghboy Hill in Magherafelt and that site has been our home ever since.”
Today Calvary Free Presbyterian is well established and, said Rev McCrea, it’s testament to the commitment, sacrifice and spirit of the community built up around it.
“That this church is standing and thriving today is a tribute to all who have put in so much dedication over the years,” he said.
“We needed a permanent home and 10 years on from first gathering for missions in Magherafelt we had our new building.
“And when I look back on my life in the church, April 29, 1978 is the memory that stands out. The day the new church building was opened.
“The first sod was cut in 1973, but as most of the work was done voluntarily by members of the congregation, it took a while to complete.
“Some people might have thought it was a foolhardy mission, but within a year of completion the sacrifice of the congregation had paid off and we were debt-free, the building paid for in full.
“That was a milestone for me, telling me I had found my permanent home.”
His dynamic preaching style continued to draw in the crowds throughout the Seventies and Eighties and his reputation grew.
“There were a lot of difficult days for Northern Ireland, we all know that, and for me personally,” he said.
On 9 April, 1991 in Coagh, the IRA shot dead Derek Ferguson, a cousin of Rev McCrea. And in July 1994 his Magherafelt home was raked with automatic gunfire.
Rev McCrea had been delayed at his Sunday night service.
His wife, three daughters and seven visitors were treated for shock after the attack.
“I’m sure I was the target and murder was their intention,” he said.
“It was a miracle nobody was killed or seriously hurt.
“If I’d been a few minutes earlier I would have been dead. I believe God had a hand in saving me that night.
“But from a personal, spiritual point of view, I can now look back and say there were plenty of great times. “Every day was a challenge. A challenge for me, a challenge for the community, a challenge for the country.
“That’s why the words of the Gospel above my head every time I preached at Calvary read ‘Woe Is Unto Me If I Preach Not The Gospel’.
“Those words served as a constant reminder and they have served me well, as I hope I have served the people well.
“From the day I went into public life, as far as I was concerned if you had a legitimate problem you had a right to be represented, and that was shown to the people who came through the doors of my offices.
“I still believe, during all that time whilst the IRA were murdering, if you had a legitimate argument and case to put forward, then you had a right to be heard.”
That was his defence after sharing a platform with notorious loyalist murderer Billy Wright at a public rally in the Brownstown estate in Portadown in September 1996 to oppose a UVF death threat against him.
He added: “First and foremost I am a preacher. Having a preacher’s heart is useful in politics. This is a genuine heart that is open to listen to people to show not only that God cares but that I do also and want to help them with whatever problem they come to me about.”
The days of firebrand preaching in his home church came to a close with his final sermon earlier this month, handing the reins to Rev Ryan McKee.
And never one to hide his emotions, Rev McCrea admitted he shed plenty of tears.
“It was very moving for me,” he said. “Of course I shed tears. These are my friends and I have loved them all. They may have to make do without me as their minister, but they’ll never lose my friendship.”
Rev McCrea will be back with his family – wife Anne and children Sharon, Ian, Stephen, Grace and Faith – for a final farewell tonight.
“I’m sure there’ll be more tears, but it will be a lovely occasion surrounded by family and so many friends I have made over the years,” he added.
True to his nature, though, Rev McCrea – now sitting in the House of Lords as Baron McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown – will not be disappearing quietly into retirement.
“I don’t think anyone has heard the last of me yet,” he laughed. “But every day I can now sit down quietly and thank God for an amazing 50-year journey.”
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